What changed between April 1998 and April 2013?


No one would wish to be in the place of Ömer Çelik, the minister of culture and tourism. He was a guest of honor at the London Book Fair, where Turkey is the market focus partner, but even before his well-received inauguration speech, the news had hit the fan: Fazıl Say, a world famous classical pianist was initially sentenced by a court in İstanbul to 10 months in prison for “denigrating the religious values of a part of society” in a series of tweets (one reciting lines from a 13th-century Sufi poet of Persia, Omar Khayyam) last year. The sentence has since been suspended, but Say cannot make a similar offense in the next five years. Çelik had a hard time discussing his views; he muttered only that he is disturbed by the verdict, but that it must be seen as the court’s decision.

The verdict is, to say the least, very unfortunate. It follows an intense domestic debate and series of international reports on freedom of expression, and it lands just in the midst of two settlement processes — a new constitution and peace with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

No doubt, it will have a long-lasting, venomous effect on perceptions of where Turkey is heading, and what there is to do with its deeply rooted “culture of intolerance” that has defined its past as well as the present.

On a political and legal level, it immediately evokes a “sigh…the-same-movie-again!” effect. It shows how little, if anything, has changed since April 1998, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then mayor of İstanbul, was given a 10-month prison sentence for reciting a poem.

It included verses which translate to “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” Because of the conviction, Erdoğan was forced to resign from his post as mayor, and he completed his shortened sentence on July 24, 1999, with a temporary ban from politics.

In essence, there is absolutely nothing that distinguishes both verdicts, with 15 years in between, from each other.

Erdoğan was sentenced under Article 312 of the old penal code, which was “transferred” by his party and the opposition to the new Turkish Penal Code (TCK), as Article 216, during the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. It was defended as a provision to combat hate speech, but was never used by the prosecutors as such.

In a fresh report Amnesty International is spot-on when it says: “In practice, Article 216 has been used to prosecute criticism of dominant beliefs and power structures and has not, to Amnesty International’s knowledge, been used to prosecute actual incitement to violence or discrimination against at-risk groups.”

Say’s verdict is enough to put Turkey’s intolerant Parliament/government into a corner of shame, but there are also points of additional value I will mention.

First, the sentencing of Say has followed repetitious outbursts of Erdoğan — at the UN, etc. — to make “blasphemy and vilifying religion” into a global criminal offense.

It would not be an exaggeration to suspect that these speeches cast dark shadows of the Zeitgeist in Turkey.

Second, the main body of Turkey’s judiciary is still under the influence of the old establishment and this ruling will definitely cause harm to the image of Turkey’s reform path.

Was it meant to be?

A lawyer who defended Erdoğan in 1998, Faik Işık, was harsh in his criticism of those against Say, defending the pianist’s tweets in the name of free speech. He said: “I am convinced that Say criticizes and mocks people who change color with every new government: those who become militarists when the army takes over or those who become suddenly religious when a conservative party is elected as the winner. He does not criticize or mock religion.”

Without a doubt, Article 216 has to go: It must be lifted and replaced by a clear rule criminalizing hate speech. In clear offenses, (symbolic) fines must replace imprisonment. But it does not mean that the limits and, if necessary, forms of punishment (fines or prison) for ridiculing religion and sacred beliefs should not be debated.

Say’s case has to do that, simply because it looks to me as if it is somewhere in between the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) famous Handyside v. United Kingdom ruling and the Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria case.

I am sure legal and free speech experts will have much to say about that.


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